Can You Make A Living at Book Reviewing?

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Thad Zajdowicz, “Book Review,” Public Domain via Flickr

It seems that this is a question being asked even among the elite reviewers of the National Book Critics Circle. Julia M. Kline spoke on a panel at Book Expo America about the challenges of getting paid to review books. A transcript of her remarks appears on Critical Mass, the NBCC’s blog.

The issue is both the shrinking space and the financial challenges both print and digital media are facing. Kline observes that the $1 a word rate paid Teddy Roosevelt seems extravagant today when freelancers might receive $.25-.50. Many review publications want reviews of 500 words or less. That is $125 to $250 for the time spent reading, writing, revising and submitting a review. She observed that the top rate paid by The Washington Post is $375. I’m fairly productive and might write 170 reviews a year. If all of them were accepted, I could earn $63,750. That’s in line with a median annual salary of $60,250 for all writers and authors in 2015 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Staff writers, the relatively few that are left, might do that well.

I suspect most freelancers are doing something else for their day jobs. Reports are that Kirkus pays its reviewers $50 per completed review, Publisher’s Weekly $25. I suppose if you are going to review anyway and are willing to conform to their formats, it’s a nice way to pick up a little extra spending money. If you are interested, here is one of a number of websites listing places that will pay for reviews. But making a living, including covering your own health care. Not so much…

But why do we need this, you ask? If you go on Amazon, you can read reviews of anything. Likewise on Goodreads. Some of those reviews might even be good. I hope some of mine are. There are lots of book bloggers out there like me doing it for the fun of it, and for some free books, which is the only pay many of us get. You might even argue that this is the democratizing of reviewing, rather than a small group of elite reviewers determining our book reading tastes.

What distinguishes the great book critics, it seems to me, is not only that they write well and perceptively, but also, that in whatever genre they review, they’ve read the significant works in the genre, and can assess books against the best of the best, and situate them on the literary landscape. It can be a fascinating exercise to review a book yourself, and then compare your review to one of these critics–fascinating and humbling. I review on the side, and have limited time and sometimes wonder what it would be like to have the luxury of being able to focus on that work.

I’ve been writing this week about book review aggregator sites. For them to work, and connect their users with quality, someone has to write these reviews. To truly be useful, there needs to be a level of quality to them. Otherwise it is garbage in-garbage out. These sites are only as good as the reviews they are aggregating.

What is clear to me is that we get the book and literary culture we are willing to pay for, and increasingly, it seems we would rather pay for less. We would rather not subscribe to a literary review when we can get some kind of review for free. We’d rather not pay the extra costs of overhead for the ambiance of a brick and mortar bookstore so that we can save a few bucks on books delivered to our doors. I kind of wonder if in our search for cheap, easy, and quick, we will wake up some day and wonder where all the richness of life has gone, including the delight of reading a book critic at the top of his or her game.

 

A Book Review Aggregator for Religious Books?

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Alltop.com screenshot, by Alves Family (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Yesterday, I wrote about Book Marks, which is a book review aggregator website, an offshoot of content aggregator, Lit Hub. That got me to thinking. Religious publishing, and particularly Christian book publishing, is the second biggest category of books, after fiction, accounting in recent years for 16 percent of book sales. Yet the Religion category on Book Marks currently features just six books. I wondered whether a book review aggregator dedicated to this market segment focused on collecting quality reviews of new religious publications by categories could be a useful resource for authors, publishers, reviewers, booksellers, and end users in this segment of the book publishing world, for all the same reasons Book Marks is an asset to the wider publishing world.

It strikes me that one of the basic questions that needs to be answered for a project like this is, can a viable business model be established for a religious book reviews aggregator site? This article on Quora suggests costs and revenue sources for such a site and what it takes to create one.

Some questions that occur to me as I think further about this:

  • Audience: Is there an audience for such a site? How do people looking for religious books find out about new publications? Would a review aggregator become a popular “go to” in searching for religious reading? Would you focus on a particular religion or go for a multi-faith audience?
  • Categories: At least in Christian publishing, Christian fiction is most popular. What categories beyond this would be featured on an aggregator site. Would more academic titles be listed as well as more popular?
  • Review sources: Book Marks works with syndicated reviews from professional reviewers. Some books on a religious site would receive reviews from these reviewers but for many newly published books, other reviewers would need to be found. What publications would be used, and what standards would be used for acceptable reviews.
  • Curation: People would need to identify books from a number of publishers, coming from a variety of perspectives, and then find quality reviews of these publications. Breadth of knowledge and a significant work ethic would be crucial.
  • Marketing: This includes how you drive traffic to the site as well as developing revenue streams. How would you work with authors, publishers, booksellers, and end users. Are there ways to work with religious bodies, and not just serve individual users?
  • Promotion of a reading culture: It would seem like an important long term aim is the cultivation of a reading, literate, religious culture. This is plainly valued more by some than others. It is fascinating to me that reading often seems more highly prized among executives like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, and some of our presidents, like Teddy Roosevelt, Barack Obama, and even George W. Bush, than in religious circles. Could a site, well-constructed and well-utilized, help with this?

The demise of Books and Culture magazine was a great loss, yet it occurs to me that there are a number, both of print publications, and respected online reviewers, whose content could be aggregated to provide a far broader and richer resource. If a similar model was used of helping people connect with brick and mortar booksellers that Book Marks uses, it could aid religious book sellers who are in the fight of their lives to stay viable. It could help those who curate religious libraries, booktables or even religious facility-based stores.

In researching this, I discovered that perhaps the most popular of the review aggregator sites is Rotten Tomatoesa movie review and rating site. Homework for anyone thinking of launching a review aggregator site probably should include spending time on sites like this and learning what they do well and why they are popular. One thing both this site and Book Marks have going is that they are fun places to explore. Also, Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, an online movie ticket company that integrates ticket sales into the Rotten Tomatoes site.

I have a day job, so this is not something I’d take on, but I do wonder if it ought to get on someone’s radar, if we think religious reading is a way to deepen our spiritual lives. It seems to me that religious teachers need connections to good scholarly resources with the latest scholarship.

I’d be curious what others think. Would you use such a site? Would you buy through such a site? Would you tell others about it? Who do you think are stakeholders who might invest in such an effort?

 

 

 

Lit Hub’s “Book Marks”

Book Marks The book review aggregator

Publishers’ Weekly recently featured a new initiative by Lit Hub called Book Marks which is an aggregator of book reviews across the web, primarily from syndicated publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and various review publications across the web.

I had a chance to visit yesterday and thought it was a pretty cool place, particularly to find reviews and ratings of new books. Here are some of the features you will find, from top to bottom.

On the right side of the black bar with Lit Hub on the left is a search box where you may enter the title of a book you want to see reviews for. Only books with three or more syndicated reviews will appear.

A site map across the top of the page takes you to the following pages:

  • Features: Review articles and other book related articles including content from Lit Hub.
  • New books: Recently published books with three or more reviews.
  • Biggest new books: The “hottest” books of the season. I presume this is by sales, because ratings on the books vary (more below)
  • Fiction: Reviews on recent fiction publications
  • Non-fiction: Reviews on recent non-fiction
  • All categories: Books listed by thirty-one categories. For each, four titles are listed by cover image with a “see more” link to the right.

Clicking on “Book Marks” will take you back to the home page. So much for navigation around the site.

On the home page, across the top most part of the page are cover images of the “biggest new books.” When you mouse over the cover image, you will see a summary of reviews ranked from “rave” to “positive” to “mixed” to “pan” and an overall average of these. Currently, for example, David Sedaris’s new book, Calypso has received more than 10 rave reviews, 5 positive, and none in the other two categories for an overall rating of “rave.” Meg Wollitzer’s The Female Persuasion has more than 10 rave reviews, 9 positive, 7 mixed and 3 pan for an overall “positive.” On the other hand, Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s The President is Missing received 3 raves, 5 positives, 6 mixed, and 4 pans for a “mixed” overall rating. Obviously reviewers don’t agree and you probably won’t either.

Clicking on the book cover image will take you to a page for the book with excerpts of several reviews, links to the full reviews and a link that will take you to all reviews for the book.Each page includes a “Buy From a Local Bookstore” box that will take you to Indie Bound and allow you to buy your book from a local bookstore. Take that, Amazon! The bottom of the page features similar books. Each page also includes a reviews “widget” for that page that may be embedded on a website of an author or publisher or bookseller. It is a great way to see the critical conversation going on about a book.

Below the Biggest New Books are Book Marks Features, then Latest Releases, Best Reviewed (not explained but it suggests that some of the best written reviews may be found here), a Daily Giveaway, More Fiction, More Non-fiction, LGBTQ Stories (I wonder if this selection changes), links to the various fiction and non-fiction categories on Book Marks, and links to the latest stories on Lit Hub. [Lit Hub also cross links their content with Book Marks.]

The three features which make this an extremely valuable site are the aggregated professional reviews (with names on them), the widgets, which help publishers and bookstores promote a book on their websites, and the function that allows you to find a local indie bookseller from whom to purchase books.

What could make this more valuable? I’d love to see them put together a phone app you could use when you are browsing in a book store. Scan the bar code for the book and the app pulls up the book page on Book Marks and allows you to see the ratings and read the reviews and decide if this book is for you. The one down side is that there are many books not yet loaded on the site since this is a new project, but particularly for new books on a variety of topics, and a selection of others, this is a great resource that promises to get better with time.

 

 

Review: The Self-Aware Leader

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The Self-Aware LeaderTerry Linhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2017.

Summary: Explores the blind spots of one’s leadership and helps us become aware of the unseen influences that shape and hinder us, so that brought into the open, they can be recognized, addressed, and redeemed.

It hardly seems that a month goes by where we don’t hear the sad tale of some prominent Christian leader who must step down from leadership because of some personal failing. You probably can multiply these publicized stories a hundred times over with the unpublicized but painful stories of lesser-known leaders, and often, those they have led. We’ve instituted accountability groups, training, oversight–and yet the frequency seems as great as ever.

Terry Linhart would argue that part of the reason is a failure to address our blind spots in leadership:

“The phrase blind spots is regularly used in leadership circles to describe problems or patterns that lurk unseen and pose potential danger. For the last two decades I have been developing and equipping young adults to serve as ministry leaders, pastors, youth workers, missionaries, and managers. That process includes helping them reflect on what they may not notice—the areas of their life too personal or hidden to see easily—that may pose potential problems. The truth is that we all have such areas, even if we’re not that young” (p. 10).

Drivers learn where their blind spots are, and “clear” them when changing lanes or maneuvering. Linhart would contend that we need to develop similar practices of self-awareness for the blind spots in our lives. He uses an example of a cross country coach who called him out to run a better race than he thought he had in him, and in this book acts as a coach, helping us become aware of those blind spots that thwart running our best race as leaders for God’s “well done.” He explores seven area:

  1. Self. At best, leading out of the unique personality and gifts of who we are rather than competing or wishing we were like someone else. He invites us to take “selfies” of our reactions and reflect upon them.
  2. Past. All of us have developed “scripts” from past experience, sometimes deeply painful experiences, that unconsciously shape our behavior patterns. Often, others can help us recognize these and experience healing as we understand where they come from, and how grace brings healing to them.
  3. Temptations. He addresses the “big five” of seeking prominence, control, materialism (“shiny stuff”), inappropriate intimacy, and resentment.
  4. Emotions. He challenges us to emotional maturity through learning to “keep a sentry,” label our feelings, be aware of other emotions, recognize the intensity of emotions, particularly unusual reactions, manage emotions, learn from them, and submit them to Jesus.
  5. Pressures. Leadership is living with pressure. Understanding internal and external pressures and developing systems to address pressure is vital.
  6. Conflicts. Conflict, like pressure is a reality of leadership. It can be handled badly or well. He offers ten pointers to healthy conflict resolution and concludes with some vital insights on passive-aggressiveness.
  7. Margins. Leaders often lack margins in their days, weeks, months, and yearly patterns to listen to God, to grow and renew mentally, and to recover from intense periods of work. He describes the idea of “sprint-drift” that I’ve found so describes the life of ministry. The danger is we try to sprint all the time!

Each chapter includes “self checks” to apply concepts and concludes with questions “for greater awareness.”

This is one of those books I wish I had forty years ago! I think I’ve learned most of the lessons in here, mostly by making a ton of mistakes, and sometimes through the gift of insightful people who observed my blind spots and helped me become aware of them. And that brings me to a paradox in this book. We don’t become self-aware by ourselves. We may take initiatives to ask others how they see us, but the truth is that there are some blind spots we will only see through the help of another–a spouse, a supervisor, a coach, or those we lead.

Linhart is a good coach. He shares his own journey toward self-awareness, his own failings and then, sometimes gently, and sometimes more annoyingly, presses us toward our best self in Christ. I once heard a prominent leader observe that people love to be led well and that aspiring to lead is a noble thing. Sadly, this leader has experienced his own failure in leadership that may reflect a certain lack of self-awareness. But the observation stands. What Linhart helps us to see is that those who lead without ending badly are those who continue to search out the blind spots that may thwart or disqualify them. Perhaps the greatest danger to the leader is the vulnerability one thinks one doesn’t have or doesn’t know about. Linhart names them without shaming us and offers guidance without guilt. Like that cross country coach, he gives us hope that we might be capable of more than we think possible even as we become more aware of who we are.

Review: Crossing Cultures with Jesus

Crossing Cultures with Jesus

Crossing Cultures with JesusKatie J. Rawson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: An introduction to international student ministry that focuses on both entering into the world of international students, led by the Spirit of Jesus, and drawing those students lovingly into Christian community.

In 2017, 1,184,735 international students were enrolled in studies in US universities. Of these 362,368 came from China and 206,698 were from India. It might surprise you to know that over 15,000 of these students come from Nepal and 3,000 of those students are studying in Texas! (Source: “US: international students top 1.18 million”The PIE News).

For many, like myself, who work in collegiate ministry, these statistics point to an amazing opportunity. We literally have the world on our doorstep at many university campuses. The opportunity to welcome these students and to share the Christian message with those who are interested, sometimes from countries where this would not be permitted, is a great privilege. Many will return to their countries to occupy significant positions of national leadership in government, business, education, and other key fields. Yet sadly, there are many international students who are never welcomed into an American home during their academic studies in the States.

The challenge in this work is to pursue it with sensitivity and grace. Often, we mistake politeness for interest, or people will say “yes” so as not to offend when they are not truly ready to do so. When we cross the street to welcome these students we are crossing cultures, just as much as if we were to fly to their country. Katie Rawson writes this book out of over thirty years of experience with international students, offering not simply a set of “how to’s” but an incarnational mindset and a spirituality of international student ministry that I believe is much needed if we are to genuinely extend the love of Christ in ways that will connect across the different cultures these students represent. She writes:

“We are sent into the world by Jesus just as he was sent by the Father. With the Spirit of the Father and Jesus inside us, we display Jesus to the world, just as he embodied and displayed the Father. As Jesus entered our world and drew us into his world—the community of Father, Son and Spirit—we are to enter the worlds of those around us and draw them into the community of Jesus. God is already carrying out his mission in the world through the Spirit, and we are to go out as participants in his mission, led by the Spirit, just as Jesus was. And our motive is the same motive Jesus had: to display the glory of the Father to all the peoples of the world so that every people group might join in never-ending worship of the Trinity. . . .” (p. 13)

The two key words or phrases here are “entering” and “drawing in” and the book is organized in two parts around these. After introducing the book with some information around the challenge and opportunity of cross-cultural evangelism and the love of the good and beautiful God that is at the heart of the universe and hopefully fills our hearts, Rawson turns to entering in. But instead of giving us technique, she teaches us about keeping in step with the Spirit and the vital importance of prayer. Then she begins with the importance of building trust through acceptance and honor while being aware of cultural differences. She helps us understand how our reading of scripture may be colored by worldview lenses, as well as understanding the different worldviews of internationals, particularly from Asia and India. Particularly critical here is understanding different values systems around four key values: honor, innocence, joy, and power.

The second part of the book focuses on drawing people into community. First, and foundational, she focuses on the characteristics of welcoming communities. She applies research by Doug Schaupp and Don Everts on the Five Thresholds of Conversion (a good overview is offered in this video) to communities working with internationals, showing how important walking with internationals through these thresholds is vital to avoid superficial conversions with no lasting transformation. She offers very practical ideas on communication and the differences between direct and indirect styles, different learning styles (conceptual, images, and intuitional), and the value of story. She follows this with a way of sharing the gospel as a story about brokenness in the world (available here electronically). She concludes by discussing how communities are important in the making of disciples when people believe.

I would describe this book as both practical and wise. It includes lots of tips and ideas, but also reflects the wisdom and spiritual insight and stories of many years in international ministry where the outward journey of reaching students has been matched with an inward journey of knowing Christ more deeply and learning to walk in step with his Spirit. Each chapter includes both individual reflection questions and group discussion questions (written by good friend and ministry colleague Marc Papai) and recommended resources related to the chapter topics (including extensive online resources at crossingculturesbook.org). It is great for collegiate ministers, ministry teams or anyone interested in welcoming and loving internationals students, entering their worlds and drawing them into community,

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Fried Balogna (Baloney) Sandwiches

Fried-baloney

Photo by Waxmop, Public Domain via Wikimedia

What could be more working class Youngstown than fried balogna sandwiches? It is the essence of simplicity on a budget. It packs a lot of calories (not necessarily healthy ones) in a compact package. All it takes is a skillet, a little bit of cooking oil, balogna slices, good old American processed cheese slices, white bread, and some mustard. Sure, you can get a lot fancier. You can substitute buns, different condiments, and so forth. I’ve seen recipes with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pepper slices, mayonnaise, pickles, pickle relish–even potato chips. You can add a fried egg, kind of the poor man’s sausage egg sandwich! My favorite sandwich topping is mustard, pickle relish, and dabs of sriracha sauce. But I digress…we didn’t grow up with sriracha sauce! Or you can keep it simple.

A few tips I’ve picked up. Frying the balogna on both sides twice gives a nice crunchy edge. You may want to add some seasoning (your favorite) and/or pepper to bring out the flavor. Slicing the balogna from the edge toward the center helps prevent the “pucker” you see in the picture above so that it fries more evenly. I like the bread toasted which seems a complement to the fried balogna. Good old fashioned yellow mustard seems the most authentic but I’d go with your favorite condiment–or skip it altogether and enjoy that fried taste of the balogna–so much richer than out of the package. You can melt the cheese on a slice for the last 5 seconds–more and you have a mess–or you can just put it on afterwards. Fried balogna sandwiches are the epitome of freedom and simplicity.

It’s funny how we delighted in such simple things. I loved when dad would make fried balogna sandwiches. I suspect mom did too, because it was a break from cooking. First the kitchen smelled heavenly, then the sandwich took you there. I suspect there was a time when you could feed a family of four for a buck–and we loved it.

It was not the stuff of a steady diet. But for a Saturday lunch or Sunday evening light meal–a weekend treat–it was perfect.

I suspect you have lots of memories (hopefully good ones) of fried balogna sandwiches. I’d love to hear them. How did you make them? And do you still?

Thinking about this post has had me eyeing that pack of balogna in the fridge all day…

No Longer a Caged Twitter Bird

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Alfred Gatty, Public Domain via Reusable Art

I found out the other day that bobonbooks.com, which had been blocked on Twitter for about a month, is no longer blocked. I can post links from this blog page and when people click on links, they no longer get scary warning messages that suggest all sorts of nefarious things could happen if they went to my website (even though this never was an actual problem). I never received an explanation from Twitter as to why I was blocked, what I needed to do to get unblocked, nor that I was no longer being blocked. I simply observed that scheduled posts were now posting to Twitter.

My reaction? I was glad, sobered, and educated.

Glad. One of the main things I do on this blog is post reviews of books, particularly recently published books I’ve received from publishers to review.  Tweeting my reviews to the publisher is one way of alerting them I have a review up (I often also email a link to publishers’ publicists). Publishers also like to re-tweet reviews they think will help promote the book. None of that was possible and the scary messages were wrongly discrediting my website. I’m glad all this has gone away, hopefully for good.

Sobered. I hadn’t imagined something like this could happen. I am careful to observe the Terms of Service on social media and any admin rules on pages where I post. I’d never had something like this happen before. One day, I simply discovered that although I could post tweets, I could no longer post any links, even in shortened form, from my site to Twitter. I discovered that the likely cause was a “false positive” report on my site that was filed at PhishTank, a blacklisting site used by many institutions to block “phishing” sites. These reports are not verified nor are website owners notified. I discovered that two other blacklisting sites subsequently had me on their unsafe lists, and I learned from some friends that my website came up with warnings or were blocked at their work computers. I don’t know why this happened. I do post material related to my religious beliefs. I wonder if that was the reason. Maybe it was just random. Whatever it was, it was a personal encounter with a dark side of the web.

Perhaps the most sobering experience was how long it took to get “unblocked” by Twitter. To the credit of the blacklisting sites, when I asked them to review my site, it took minutes to a day at most for them to change the status of my site to safe. I submitted a ticket to Twitter as well. It took a month for them to finally unblock the site. As I said above, I have no clue why I was blocked or unblocked. I was surprised and glad that I was able to post links to bobonbooks.com. My son had suggested I just give up, which I about had, because, in his words, “there is no upside for them.”

Educated. Here are some things I learned:

  • Technically, because my site is hosted on WordPress.com, “drive-by” attacks that post malware or phishing links cannot happen because of their security protocols. I doubt whether this is foolproof, but if someone hacks WordPress.com, there are potentially millions of us compromised. However, if an individual user is blacklisted, you are on your own.
  • If you host your own website, or it is hosted elsewhere, you do need to take the security of your site seriously. Make sure your software, virus and anti-malware software is up to date and running, and you have a good firewall. There are also companies that provide website and reputation protection. If you do business on your site, some form of this protection could be a good investment.
  • I now use Sucuri SiteCheck to check my site daily. It scans your site for malware and phishing links and also checks nine of the top blacklisting sites. It may not be foolproof, but it is a good line of defense and helped me discover blacklisting sites where I was blacklisted.
  • I revisited my own security practices and added dual authentication to my blog site. Anyone else logging on results in a text to my cell phone. I also clear spam comments, moderate commenting, and block spammers. Visitors to the site never see this.
  • While you can take steps to secure your site, it is still possible for your site to be wrongly blacklisted. Blacklisting sites only check your site if you ask them, and once you are blacklisted somewhere, it spreads to all who use those sites to protect their systems or end users. It can seriously affect your web traffic and your site’s reputation. It can happen to you! I’m not a big fish and it happened to me. I’ve learned it has happened to others.
  • Social media sites like Twitter currently can do what they want. They are not regulated. They have no obligation to offer live support. To have real people available for users with a problem that requires immediate attention may, in my son’s words, “have no upside.” If anything, the death of internet neutrality rules may make it worse. From what I can tell, Twitter can block any links or content it wants. Period. They have the final say. If you don’t like it, there is really no court of appeal as far as I can tell, other than public opinion. I honestly didn’t expect to get back on apart from buying a new web domain name. I’m glad something worked.

If you are a blogger or have a website, I hope this doesn’t happen to you. It can. I didn’t even know this could happen. Now I do. It is sad and disturbing that we spend much of our lives online guarding ourselves from those who might harm or defraud or troll us.  If you see anything weird going on when you visit my site, let me know. You can be sure it is not intentional. I still love all that you can do and find on the internet. But it’s a far cry from when I first downloaded Mosaic and discovered the wonders of the web. I think those of us who still see this as a place for dialogue and discovery will have to fight to keep it that way. I’ve always said this site is about promoting conversations about the good, the beautiful, and the true. Perhaps what can keep us going against all the weirdness is the belief that somehow, it is the good, the true, and the beautiful that will endure.

Review: The Cross and Christian Ministry

the cross and christian ministry

The Cross and Christian MinistryD. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018 (repackaged edition, originally published 1993).

Summary: In these expositions from 1 Corinthians, Carson sets forth the cruciform character of biblically faithful Christian ministry.

In the 1990’s, D. A. Carson published several collections of expositions. Recently Baker has begun “repackaging” them. Recently I reviewed The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus. The Cross and Christian Ministry is another of these repackaged works that I am glad is receiving a new lease on life. What Carson says about the cruciform character of Christian ministry is just as, if not more, relevant today than when these works were first published twenty-five years ago.

This book is a series of expositions from the book of 1 Corinthians, four on the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians and a final one from chapter 9. Each concludes with questions that may be used for reflection or group discussion. In brief, they cover:

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5The Cross and Preaching. He begins by showing how the cross divides humanity as foolishness to the perishing and the power of God for those being saved. It is folly that outsmarts the greatest of human wisdom and yet includes many the world would exclude. He concludes about the message of those who preach, that testifies to God’s work, focuses on Christ crucified and relies on the power of the Spirit. He has pointed comments about those who try to manipulate audiences, particularly in youth ministry.

1 Corinthians 2:6-16The Cross and the Holy Spirit. This message notes three contrasts in the passage:

  1. Between those who receive God’s Wisdom and those who do not.
  2. Between the Spirit of God and the spirit of the world.
  3. Between the “natural person and the “spiritual” person.

He concludes by observing that the work of the Holy Spirit is essential for a person truly to understand the cross. We may intellectually grasp the meaning of the cross but nevertheless need the Holy Spirit to illuminate that understanding and overcomes our human resistance to facing our sin and God’s saving work.

1 Corinthians 3, The Cross and Factionalism. Factionalism fundamentally is a sign of Christian immaturity. It fails to realize that leaders are really servants, and will give account for their leadership. Sadly, factionalism both fails to recognize the great work of God, focusing on human beings, and inevitably diminishes the great inheritance we have in Christ as it focuses on only a select aspect of that inheritance. Carson notes that in factionalism, we cut ourselves off from so much that is good and enriching in the rest of the church.

1 Corinthians 4The Cross and Christian Leadership. In this message, Carson explores what it means to be a Christian leader in light of the cross:

  1. It means being entrusted with the “mysteries” of God. Leaders should faithfully fulfill that trust, and others should realize that such leaders are seeking to please God and not stand in judgment of them.
  2. It means living in the light of the cross which meant for Paul following a crucified Lord and embracing suffering.
  3. It means encouraging and enforcing the way of the cross among the people of God. We both help people to grasp the precious significance of the cross, and warn those who presume on the cross and fail to follow Christ in their daily life.

1 Corinthians 9:19-27, The Cross and the World Christian. The term “world Christian” was much used in mission-oriented circles in the 1990’s and might be similar to today’s “missional Christian.” Carson gives a wonderful definition that challenges the contemporary attractions of nativism and tribalism that focuses on either the greatness of one’s country or the pre-eminence of one’s own particular “tribe.”

“The allegiance to Jesus Christ and his kingdom is self-consciously set above all national, cultural, linguistic, and racial allegiances.

Their commitment to the church, Jesus messianic community, is to the church everywhere, wherever the church is truly manifest, and not only to its manifestation on home turf.

They see themselves first and foremost as citizens of the heavenly kingdom and therefore consider all other citizenship a secondary matter.

As a result, they are single-minded and sacrificial when it comes to the paramount mandate to evangelize and make disciples” (p. 133).

Carson emphasizes from the text that such people understand their freedom and their constraints in Christ; they do not stand on their “rights”; they set the salvation of others as their aim and understand that there is really no other way to be a Christian.

This collection of messages, originally given at several conferences, are not exegetical commentaries, but rather seek to make clear for both the original audiences and the reader the meaning of the text and its implications. Carson writes with clarity, devotional warmth, and a perceptive eye to application for the contemporary church. He particularly addresses any person in leadership, making us take a hard look at our own character and practice and vision in light of the cross. I’m struck with how well these messages have worn. While certainly one can spy references that are dated, it seemed to me that these messages if anything may be more timely in our own day, because they center around the timeless truth of the cross.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Expository Exultation

Expository Exultation

Expository Exultation, John Piper. Carol Stream, IL: Crossway Books, 2018.

Summary: Contends that the purpose of preaching is expository exultation; that preaching is integral to worship in the preacher’s work of making clear and exulting over the text of scripture as it reveals the glories of God.

This is one John Piper book that I can unequivocally endorse. While I might differ with him in other matters, I found myself saying “Amen” again and again as I read this book. The reason for this is that he recovers and articulates as well as anyone since Martyn Lloyd Jones and John Stott the glory and high calling of preaching. His central contention is that preaching, properly done is “expository exultation.” What does he mean by this?

“The title Expository Exultation is intended to communicate that this unique form of communication is both a rigorous intellectual clarification of the reality revealed through the words of Scripture and a worshipful embodiment of the value of that reality in the preacher’s exultation over the word he is clarifying. Preachers should think of worship services not as exultation in the glories of God accompanied by a sermon. They should think of musical and liturgical exultation (songs, prayers, readings, confession, ordinances, and more) accompanied and assisted by expository exultation–preaching as worship.”

Piper offers a helpful correction to the mentality that says worship is over when the music ends, where the message is kind of a letdown or a time for the mind to wander.

The remainder of the book is an unpacking of the above statement. He begins with a discussion of how fitting it is for the people of God to gather for corporate worship and then shows how preaching as expository exultation is integral to our corporate worship and rooted in the persons of the Trinity. The following two parts of this work focus on both the supernatural and natural aspects of expository exultation–the work of the Holy Spirit and the proper use of our skills to communicate with clarity and logic the reality of God and his work revealed in the biblical text.

The next part of this work was perhaps one of the most illuminating parts for me that explained why much biblical exposition falls flat. We may say what the text says, even individual words, and what it means, and how it bears on our lives. But Piper contends that we often do not clearly communicate the reality to which the text bears witness as we direct attention to the text so that people discover that reality for themselves, not by hearing us, but by seeing that this is what the text says. Good preaching shows how reality shines through the text.

He then turns in the next part to the central realities to which he believes the biblical text bears witness. They are the glory of God, Christ crucified, and the obedience of faith. Piper would contend that all three run through scripture and ought run through our exposition of it. Then in the following part, he shows how these three central realities run through even the Old Testament. He concludes by reminding the preacher of the high calling and indispensable importance of expository exultation in the life of the church. And he speaks personally to aspiring preachers:

“But he who called you is faithful. He will do it. I testify from forty years in the ministry of the word, through the best and the worst of times, God loves to help the preacher who is desperate to make the word plain for the holy happiness of his people, by the blood of Christ, for the glory of God. He will help you.”

So much preaching seems disconnected from the glories of God and the work of Christ we sing and celebrate in music, liturgy and ordinance or sacrament. Too often it seems merely to be an inspirational message to help us engage another week, or a series of marching orders. Piper articulates a vision of preaching consistent with the rest of worship–that God is the glorious hero of the scriptures we preach, that the decisive act in the story was the life, death and resurrection of the Son, and we are invited through the regeneration and empowering of his Spirit to participate through the obedience of faith in this great venture of God in his world. Those are the realities we make clear from the text of scripture and over which we exult and lead God’s people in joyous exultation both in corporate worship and lives of worship. No wonder Piper has been at it forty years and continues to preach and write with such passion!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Subversive Gospel

A Subversive Gospel

A Subversive Gospel (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Michael Mears Bruner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2017.

Summary: Proposes that the grotesque and violent character of Flannery O’Connor’s work reflects her understanding of the subversive character of the gospel and the challenge of awakening people in the Christ-haunted South to the beauty, goodness, and truth of the gospel.

A number of years ago our book group decided to read the collected works of Flannery O’Connor. It was a challenge. The stories involved everything from a stolen wooden leg to a rape to the murder of a whole family. The word “grotesque” is often used to describe her work. The question arises, why did this single Catholic woman, who lived on her parents’ farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, suffering and ultimately dying of lupus, write such strange stories?

Michael Mears Bruner explores this question in his contribution to the Studies in Theology and the Arts series.  His discussion focuses particularly around the novel The Violent Bear It Away (an allusion to Matthew 11:12 in the Douay-Rheims version) and a statement about the main character, Francis Tarwater, about whom O’Connor says:

“His black pupils, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf.”

Bruner’s thesis is “that through the medium of her art, Flannery O’Connor showed her readers how following Christ is a commitment to follow in his shadow, which becomes a subversive act aesthetically (“bleeding”), ethically (“stinking”), and intellectually (“mad”).” Elsewhere, and repeatedly in the text, he refers to the “terrible beauty, violent goodness and foolish truth of God.” Bruner helps us realize that O’Connor writes in a Southern context that has been effectively innoculated against the Christian gospel–grown so comfortable with Christian language that it is impervious to the radical and startling claims of the Christian faith–the beauty of God’s love revealed in suffering, the goodness and righteousness of God revealed in the violent death of Jesus, and the foolishness of a message wiser than human wisdom. The grotesque and the violent in O’Connor’s stories startle us awake to realities to which we’ve grown too accustomed.

Bruner begins with tracing the development of O’Connor’s writing from the earlier to the later works which reflect a theological turn that he attributes to the influence of Baron von Hugel’s thought. He then looks at the moral and theological vision that shapes her work as a Roman Catholic in the fundamentalist south. He connects her dramatic vision with her subversive aesthetic and then goes deeper into how her work subverts the transcendentals of beauty, goodness, and truth. Finally he applies this approach to her last novel, The Violent Bear It Away. A brief conclusion is followed by a liturgical celebration of the Eucharist using O’Connor’s work.

The body of this work consists of dense literary analysis, and it is helpful to have recently read and have a copy of O’Connor’s work handy. In the process, Bruner joins O’Connor in challenging the nostrums and platitudes of Christian faith with the subversive character of O’Connor’s work. One example is this passage:

“Yet this hardly settles the matter regarding the notion that God might indeed be terrible, and so what do we do with this component of O’Connor’s fierce theology? She refuses to placate us with religious euphemisms and spiritual jargon, preferring instead to ‘shout’ and ‘draw large and startling figures” in our faces” (p. 154).

O’Connor wrote to disturb the comfortable, and Bruner demonstrates just how subversive she was in her story writing. He also helps us understand the theological turn in her writing and the influences other critics have noted briefly or not at all. He helps those of us disenchanted with enculturated, saccharine versions of Christianity who ask, “is that all there is?” to see that O’Conner writes out a more bracing vision, one we might even need to brace ourselves against. She defies all our conventions of beauty, goodness, and truth, Bruner argues, because that is what the gospel does. She bids us ask the dangerous question of whether this is in fact the gospel we’ve believed–as dangerous a question as a Flannery O’Connor story.